Addressing the American people for the final time as President, Dwight Eisenhower warned that:
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.
This may seem a long way from Andy Burnham’s suggestion that the government should regulate breakfast cereals and, of course, in one sense it is. Yet one of the features of our society is the steady accumulation of influence – and increasingly of power too – of what might be termed the Government-Health-Security Complex*.
Sometimes slippery slopes really do exist. Some folk warned that the public health industry – that is, the Government-Health-Security Complex – would never be satisfied with its battles against tobacco and alcohol and that it would, in time, launch fresh offensives against fast food, soft drinks, and all things salty an sweet. Don’t be silly, we were told. That’s different. Well, who looks stupid now?
Like so much else this is also, in the end, a question of power and class. The NHS – treated as some kind of secular religion – is to be used as a means of shaming the population (especially the bestial lower orders) into behaving in a more comely, acceptable fashion. The class prejudice inherent in all this is rarely far from the surface. The common people are revolting. Their pleasures must be taxed or, wherever possible, suppressed entirely (see extending the ban on smoking in working-class clubs for example).
And, always, the message is simple: the people – poor, lardy, wheezing, sods – are too stupid to make their own choices and it is government’s role to save them from themselves.
Which might be fine if there were any logical limit to this kind of good-natured coercion. But there is not. The battle never ceases. The “public health” campaigners simply move to the next stage of their campaign. First: ban tobacco advertising. Then ban smoking in public places. Then demand “plain packaging”. And when that fails to prevent some people from smoking? What next?
Defenders of the faith insist that Something Must Be Done and that “addressing” the causes of obesity will prove less expensive than dealing with the consequences of the supposed epidemic threatening our future. And perhaps they have a point. Yet does anyone suppose that regulating breakfast cereals or insisting upon better food labeling will really make any great difference? McDonalds, for instance, already supplies calorie information on its menus. And to what effect?
If you impose legal limits on the quantities of salt or sugar in foods purchased at the supermarket there seems no obvious reason why you should not also impose limits on the quantities of salt and sugar individuals may purchase to use in their own kitchens. After all, they may misuse these ingredients, not least by manufacturing their own, home-made “Frosties”.
None of this amounts to a partisan point. The Conservatives are just as bad as Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Like his predecessor, Jeremy Hunt has been captured by the Government-Health-Security Complex and is quite happy for the government to creep into your kitchen.
If all this were really about healthy living then the GHSC would not spend so much time telling us that we need to “address” these issues to save money. All these fatties, you see, will cost the NHS money we can ill-afford. But, actually, as it is essentially a national insurance pool there is a a libertarian (or one type of libertarian) defence of the NHS that, I think, should remind us that smokers and drinkers more than pay for themselves. Taxes on tobacco and alcohol are a kind of increased health-insurance premium.
It may be counterintuitive but it remains the case that there’s ample evidence supporting the notion that smokers and drinkers cost the health service less than their non-smoking, teetotal brethren.
This does not matter to the GHSC because it appreciates that, especially in the present miserly climate, the best way to “win” an argument is to persuade a sufficient number of people that they are paying for the ghastly behaviour of other people. Couple the “if it saves one life” strategy with the “if it saves one pound” approach and you have a powerful one-two punch that’s enough to persuade most people that Something Must Be Done.
Happily it doesn’t even matter whether that Something actually works. If it does then it merely demonstrates what more could be achieved by more stringent measures; if it doesn’t work then it demonstrates that even more stringent measures are required. Heads the Government-Health-Security Complex wins; tails it wins too.
Frosties and Coco Pops today. But don’t be fooled into thinking it will end there.
*I am indebted to Nicholas Blincoe for the grim term “health-security”.